Wouldn't you take advantage of free airfare for a two-week vacation in Europe? That's what I did on my way home from Saudi Arabia. I decided to hop through Amsterdam, Paris, Antwerp, and Cologne before flying all the way back. It was in Antwerp where I visited Michelle, the one who helped me get the Saudi job. Michelle was so thoughtful to purchase us a food tour for my visit. I would get to try the local specialties and she would get some background for her to share with future visitors.

Michelle was careful to select the tour after one mentioned a stop at Five Guys! Really? Please! Luckily she found Nina, who runs Bites and Walks. Nina has grown up in Antwerp with a Belgian mother and Spanish father. She grew up around food and worked in the hotel food industry before deciding to take the leap to start the food tour. You can choose from weekday or weekend, food or beer, private or group tours. We were lucky that my visit included the Saturday market day.

Here are some of the highlights. Thanks to Nina for providing proper names, spellings, details.

Belgian breakfast at CafĂ© The Pelikan (above) which included "Rodenbach beer + grey shrimps + Brugges Cheese + Tagliate Charcuterie, finely sliced from Beef Belgian Wit Blauw (White Blue Belgian Beef breed) topped with celery in a vinegar sauce" 

Antwerpse Handjes from Philippe Biscuit, a patented "biscuit that won a competition back in 1934 to celebrate the battle between Brabo and Antigoon, the legend that tells the story how Antwerp got it’s name." Basically the story is that a giant, Antigoon, demanded a toll at the river or cut off your hand. Brabo defeated Antigoon and cut off his hand and threw it in the river. "Ant" comes from "hand" and "werp" comes from "throw".

"Eel which we just topped of with some drops of lemon. From Soraya, a Moroccan entrepreneur and leading lady from Rungis Fish at the Provinciestraat in Antwerp." 

Belgian croquettes are unlike the ones we generally know. These are very moist inside with a very crispy outside. Above we see shrimp, asparagus, and truffle croquettes. Nina explains that it's all about the textural difference between the two, which is also reflected in...

Belgian Frites (fries). This particular batch we tried comes from Frites Atelier, a fast casual chain from a Michelin star earning chef, Sergio Herman. He researched to find the perfect potato for the texture they prize - double-fried, crispy outside with tender inside. He has a proprietary samphire salt and his own blends of aiolis.

"The herring, intestines removed, salted and matured for some time. Served with chopped onion, which is an old habit. The name MAATJE is very important, it means VIRGIN, it is only caught at sea during the months May and June when the fish haven't spawned. If it is caught after this period, it is called SALT
HERRING. The fish is flash frozen for 24 hours because eating raw fish can be dangerous and so that the herring worm will be killed. The reason why we eat onion with it goes way back to the time when it was not as easy as today to conserve fish, so they needed to add much more salt. When they ate the herring they needed to rinse the fish with water and milk. The result was that the herring tasted a bit too bland and onion was added."

There are only a few places left that serve it freshly prepared. Here you see the guy gutting and prepping it fresh for us.

There were some other stops along the way for pastries, Belgian chocolate, and sites, but I don't want to give everything away. And you may have noticed that our tour was food only since our small group had agreed we weren't too interested in alcohol that early.  So, if in Antwerp, look Nina up at Bites and Walks and you can schedule the tour with her tailored to your needs!

No. There is no problem with the picture. It's supposed to be black. That's because I couldn't see or take pictures of my food. I had attended a dark dinner.

You may have heard of these restaurants. They have them at most major cities around the world, including San Francisco, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. That's the one I chose to go to -Dans le Noir en Paris. The restaurants feature a dining experience where you cannot see your food and must rely on your other senses instead. We know that if a person loses one sense, such as sight or sound, they compensate with stronger responses of their other senses. Can this translate to a fully-sensed person on a temporary basis?

I arrived for my dinner reservation and was asked for my dining option. The menu is set, your choices are just how many courses you want and if you want wine or beer pairings. I chose three courses and no beverages.

Each restaurant can operate a bit differently, but many of them have blind servers. Such was the case in Paris. I was grouped with a young couple since I was dining solo. Our server was introduced as Yaya and he took the young man by the hand and his girlfriend and I followed by putting our left hands on the person in front's shoulder so that we were a human chain. We were led through a series of blackout curtains until we were in absolute darkness. There was not a pinpoint of light at all. I decided to just keep my eyes closed for the duration because I knew if I left them open, I'd be straining my eyes all night looking for something...ANYTHING... to see. I have enough eye strain in my daily life with computers, I didn't need more. 

When we arrived at the table, Yaya guided us each one at a time to our seat. I then felt the table and found the fork, knife, napkin, and cup. My companions had been given the water bottle and told to pour for ourselves, but to use our fingers in the cup to know when to stop the pour. We also had a basket of bread.

Yaya returned and asked or our hand out. He placed a small shot glass in my hand with the amouse bouche. It was a cold soup. I was thinking perhaps a cold pea soup. At the end of the meal they actually do tell you what you ate, so we later found out it was a cucumber gazpacho. 

Next was the starter. It was cold and on the first bite I knew it was salmon lox, but with what else? There were definitely melon balls as well, but we did not figure out the shaved asparagus ribbons.

The entree came out next and we gently poked around. There was, we thought, mashed potatoes, some beef with sauce, and then a cold portion of the plate that definitely had cherry tomatoes. Could we figure these ingredients out.

We guessed easily enough that it was beef and surmised it was in a red wine sauce and that the mashed potatoes had fresh peas in it. What threw me a bit was when I got a warm strawberry! There's no mistaking strawberry flavor and then the texture with the tiny seeds on the outside. Why was the strawberry there and warm? 

I am no fan of tomatoes and after taking a few tentative bites of other things, I pretty much left my cold section alone. The gal at my side guessed eggplant, another thing I'm not a fan of.

In the end we were to discover that the beef was actually in a balsamic based sauce with the strawberries as a component. The mashed potatoes were actually pureed peas with some whole ones left in. The cold portion was a camponata with the tomatoes, eggplant, and olives. None of which I care for!

At this point I posed the question to my companions - do you think not seeing is enhancing your other senses to the food? We generally agreed that it didn't do so much. Although we obviously paid a lot more attention to the seedy strawberry, we didn't really feel our sense heightened. Instead, we felt we had a better of understanding of how it is for blind people to navigate dining.

The final course arrived in warm, closed mason jars. It was immediately recognizable as rice pudding with a lime zest curd. It had just a bit of bitterness you get when you get a bit of the white pith in with the zest. What we did not detect was the coconut fumee on top.

Once complete, Yaya led us out the same way we came in. Breaking through the final blackout curtains was a shock. It took some time for our eyes to adjust to the lights. We were then given the iPad to see what we had just consumed. We had generally done a pretty good job with only a few surprises.

It's a fun activity to do, especially with a group of friends. The next table over was a party of 11! They were having quite a good time. I just had no one ever interested, so I figured might as well go in Paris as anyplace else. Made it more memorable for me. Convince your friends, set a date, and try it!